Survey kicks off mountains largest, most in-depth planning session to date
The mountain resort world has changed a lot in the past 10 or 15 years.
Once a fringe sport, snowboarders now account for almost half of all mountain users and the majority of younger participants. Snowboarding also gave rise to the terrain park phenomenon, which has become a big part of any mountain resort offering.
Skis have also changed a lot. Parabolic designs made it easier for intermediate skiers to carve. Twin-tip skis were created for a new generation of skiers riding the terrain park. Specialized big mountain skis have also become more common as more riders are empowered to tackle the toughest terrain.
The clothes and boots have also improved, allowing visitors to ski and ride comfortably in any kind of weather, and to stay out a lot longer on cold days.
Detachable lifts have helped the mountains to increase hourly lift capacity, allowing people to pack more turns into a day.
And the evolution is continuing.
This year Whistler-Blackcomb started to allow snow skates on the mountain, even creating a special terrain park area for this new trend. More people are heading into the trees, and encouraging the mountains to add more gladed runs. Terrain park stunts are getting bigger, resulting in the creation of a special pass to enter the most difficult zones and a new regulation requiring the use of helmets.
The mountains have also expanded summer operations to focus on mountain biking, creating trails that recognize how the technology of bikes and skill level of riders has changed over the years.
At every stage of this evolution, Whistler-Blackcomb has been a leader in North America and the world. As a result theyve received numerous awards and have been recognized in the leading industry magazines for everything from maintaining the top terrain park in North America to offering the best big mountain experiences. The Whistler Mountain Bike Park, which is set to almost triple its vertical, set a new standard for parks around the world. The top mountain bikers in the world now ride and train here.
When you look at all the changes that the industry has gone through in the past decade, you have to wonder what skiing is going to look like in another 10 years.
Rather than react to the changes as they have in the past, Whistler-Blackcomb recently kicked off a large-scale mountain planning exercise in an attempt to anticipate where the industry is going. The results of the study, which will be applied to the larger mountain master plan, will help Whistler-Blackcomb decide where to focus its energy and capital spending in the future.
"This is a re-envisioning project, its far reaching, and will look as far out on the horizon as we can," said Arthur DeJong, the manager of mountain planning and environmental resources for Whistler-Blackcomb.
"Its just loaded with questions. Our principle driver is our visionary leader in this, Hugh Smythe (president of Intrawest Resort Operations), who is essentially asking what will our guests, the mountain enthusiasts, look like in 10 years?
"Looking back 15 years, the typical user was a skier in a one-piece ski suit with long, narrow skis. Things have changed a lot. Its been revolutionary."
This is the largest project of its kind that Whistler-Blackcomb has engaged in, says DeJong, and it will include everything from studies of demographics, economics and tourism to a look at emerging technologies and trends.
The study kicked off on Dec. 28 with mountain employees conducting surveys in lift lines. It was a busy day with more than 24,000 skier visits, and Whistler-Blackcomb mined a lot of information from these people. The information collected included demographic data e.g. age, income, experience, place of residence, skier or boarder as well as impressions whether the people were enjoying the experience.
At the same time, surveyors in helicopters flew around to see how skiers were distributed on different runs and lifts.
"We have no intention of chasing changes in demographics and the market. The intent is to be more open to greet those changes. We need to understand whats going to happen before it happens," said DeJong.
"The bottom line is that weve been very successful to date, and that we dont want to take that success for granted and start sliding backwards."
The ground and air survey will help Whistler-Blackcomb to identify strengths and weaknesses of the existing operation, says DeJong. The study will also take into account the mountain resort industry in North America and around the world, looking to other success stories for information and inspiration.
"Whats hot, whats not, whos successful or not, and why," said DeJong.
"For example, we want know why our Japanese market has dropped by 40 per cent, and how air travel, and all the problems in that industry, is going to influence our business."
The ski industry has been particularly concerned recently with the shifting demographics in the industry as a whole, with fewer youth taking up the sport to replace the huge number of baby boomers who will be hanging up their skis in the next decade.
In addition, studies suggest that an estimated 20 per cent of young North Americans will remain single for most of their lives, reducing the family market while creating a whole new market that will have different needs.
Prosperity is also expected to create new markets in South America and Asia as the population is expecting to increase by 2 billion people in the next 50 years. Most of those people will live in urban areas, and will have different reasons for getting away, and different requirements when they get there.
The Olympics will be an excellent leverage for Whistler to attract new guests and capture emerging markets, says DeJong, providing the Games are implemented in a way that benefits the community as well as the overall visitor experience.
Retention is also a major issue. "How do we come stronger at retaining our first-time users? How do we get them hooked?" asks DeJong.
"Weve been pretty successful with the youth market, but theres still a question of how we get youth to adopt the mountain experience as part of their lifestyles. When you look at the statistics, the most frequent activity for 18 to 24-year-olds is computer games. Then you look at statistics that youth obesity has doubled in the last 20 years," said DeJong. "Were not just competing against other resorts, but video games and television, and fitness. Were just bombarded with all kinds of these statistics, and our goal is to put them together and look at the big, big picture."
Whistler as a whole has been more successful in attracting summer visitors, but outside of the mountain bike park, only a few of those visitors will use Whistler-Blackcombs facilities. Whistler-Blackcomb is also looking for ways to increase visitors during the slower shoulder seasons, in the late spring and fall.
Whistler-Blackcombs master plan includes provisions for expanding the number of lifts and terrain. For Whistler Mountain, these include a proposed expansion into the Flute/Piccolo area and an expansion on the west side in the area known as Peak to Creek.
DeJong believes the study, which will take into account issues like global warming, will help to guide that expansion while making better use of existing infrastructure through new technology and the better management of resources.
"Were looking at where we want to add to the current experience of skiing and riding on Whistler-Blackcomb, and at the sequence of adding to these experiences," DeJong said.
DeJong says the environment will be a core element of whatever is decided, and views the study as an exercise in social, economic and environmental sustainability keeping the natural experience the same while continuing to meet the needs of guests and the community.
The goal is to complete the study by the summer. Whether some or all of the findings from this study will be made available to the public or kept in-house and away from the competition will be decided when the study is complete. Members of the industry may have to work together more in the future to reach new markets, said DeJong.
"Who knows, it might be in our best interests to share this, or part of this, with other resorts out there," he said.
"The danger for us is in believing that the current picture is going to stay the same, when the only certainty in this industry is change."